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|We Already Have Plenty of Sensors
- The Occupants Themselves
We try to flood buildings with sensors that see, hear and even smell the indoor environment. The gathered data can then be used to better understand the problems and opportunities a building presents. However, the approach by Boston-based firm CrowdComfort highlights the fact that we already have plenty of sensors in our buildings – the eyes, ears, and noses of the occupants themselves.
simple idea, originally pitched at the 2013 Boston Cleanweb Hackathon, was the starting
point and basis for CrowdComfort. They sought to bring these sensors
online using a smartphone app, and in doing so, they hope to unlock
efficiencies in building and workplace management. Their Human Sensor
Network naturally highlights the most important issues for occupants in
a building, by literally using human intelligence at the system’s edge.
Last week, Memoori spoke with Eric Graham Co-Founder & CEO of CrowdComfort, about their approach, as well as wider issues around occupancy analytics, predictive maintenance, and efficiency in commercial buildings.
“CrowdComfort is a human sensor technology company – like Waze but for building communication. Waze is crowdsourcing traffic information from occupants in vehicles, we are crowdsourcing occupant data from people who work in large corporations and buildings all over the US and internationally,” said Graham.
concept is very simple. As people move around a building or campus,
they always have their ears, eyes, and nose with them, sensing their
environment. Importantly they also always have their smartphone with
them, connecting them to the Internet. Like sensing hardware, they can
identify problems, then transmit information about those problems to a
central system that analyses and acts on it and other information.
with a human brain behind those sensors, the information sent will be
more intuitive, have more context and is gathered with more common
sense. A human with a smartphone is essentially like a highly
intelligent sensor system. Therefore any building full of humans with
smartphones can essentially be a smart building without the need for
“We operate at the
interface between people and the smartphone in their pocket as they
walk through the building,” explained Graham. “When you think about the
ease of use of consumer apps that we use every day, then you walk into
even the most futuristic office, it’s almost like you’re stepping back
in time 20 years – at least when it comes to ease of use compared to
those consumer-facing apps,” he continued.
aimed to deliver a new source of information and way to communicate
that information with building occupants that addressed the issues of
the existing system. “In today’s world these processes are too
bureaucratic, overly burdensome, require excessive administration
effort to try to feed data into existing software systems, which wastes
a lot of time and energy,” Graham and his team discovered in their
to Eric Graham talk about GE, CrowdComfort’s first paying customer,
and how that job helped them realize the potential of their Human
Sensor Network approach.
they measured the use of the CrowdComfort platform during their
landmark GE project – by leveraging the interface of the devices people
already have, who were reporting information in the building and
dispatching it to people who can fix it – they reduced the amount of
time spent managing, administrating, scoping and dispatching people, by
around 80% and improved response time by seven times.
“It was an immediate ‘aha!’ moment for us. It was really a huge opportunity,” said Graham. “We thought it was an anomaly in one building, but what we found since then – now we have 10 fortune 500 companies as clients – was that this is just the way in which the real estate industry has developed the operational process around the software systems that existed at the time these processes were developed.”
success in the GE project and others was dependant on the system being
accepted by the user, but they have had great success in that regard.
“We’ve had good user adoption because the existing processes are
frustrating for people to use. When you give them something that’s
really simple and only take a couple of clicks to send off and get a
response. People like that,” Graham stated while relating the process
to the key rules of customer service and human engagement, “respond,
respond quickly and resolve the problem.”
The human network does not need to supplant the older software, however; it can act as a front-end to the existing software system. “We’re not saying you need to replace that software system, that contains all kinds of important information. By adding this human sensor layer to the front end, you gain all this communication efficiency while also enhancing the data you maintain in those systems,” Graham explained.
Nor is it a question of a human sensor network or a technology sensor network, the two combined offer even greater benefits. However, Graham believes that current IoT networks simply “aren’t that advanced” to give enough meaning to the information being gathered.
to Graham’s example of this, when CrowdComfort applied their
approach to predictive maintenance in the huge Google building in New
opening up data input to the occupants can be a double-edged sword,
where you may get too much information for example. Like “turning the
keys to the asylum over to the inmates,” Graham said, referring to a
notion that exists in real estate management. Graham believes that fear
is caused by the challenges of the existing software and processes,
which end up being really cumbersome for users and occupants. “The
existing response protocols are often described as a black hole for
both occupants and managers,” he added.
other issue is that with tracking people comes privacy concerns. Traditional IoT sensors often
work passively, meaning they collect data continuously in the
background, either through mobile devices or through sensors that can
track where people are. Where as a human network generally uses active
feedback, which includes highlighted issues, booking of meeting rooms
and other occupant triggered actions.
“We only use active feedback, so our users don’t have to worry that we’re following them around because we only take their location data when they give it to us. However, we have a number of partners who offer passive occupancy tracking technologies, and while that can enhance the value for the corporation, it can also make occupants feel uncomfortable,” said Graham.
Graham also pointed out that people don’t mind sharing that information with a wide variety of consumer-facing apps, be it GPS data in mapping apps or others. “When you’re a consumer, you’re doing it on your own behalf, but when it’s your employer people get concerned about where the data is going and how it’s being used.” The key to all this, he says, is in delivering value to the consumer. “It is important that there is the value given back to the user that makes them want to use the platform and have that information available.
The Human Sensor Network is hardly a radical idea but, by applying contemporary ideas around user-friendly technology, CrowdComfort has highlighted and addressed the inefficiencies of an existing system. Their success reminds us that human intelligence is an important part of the IoT, able to offer benefits that technology alone cannot.
kind of “human layer” is clearly here to stay and, when seen in the
context of wearable and implanted tech,
apps like this may
one day be seen as an early step in human-technology.
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